Broken Commitments: 3 Teachers weigh in on practice “overload” and breaking Vajrayana practice promises. What do we do about it?
Too busy to practice? Too stressed out or sick to fulfil your practice commitments? Assuming you’ve prioritized — reducing Facebook, Twitter and television time — what if you continue to break your practice commitments? What can you do about it? Can you give back the commitment? Can you repair the negative karma? Here’s what three teachers have to say: Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Venerable Zasep Rinpoche and Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche.
It’s easy to fall behind on commitments
Damage from broken commitments sounds very heavy, ominous, depressing. Any vow or promise should be taken seriously, but it carries an even more rigorous standard in Buddhist practice. Many of us have collected numerous practice commitments; it’s easy to do. A teacher we admire comes to town and we rush out to attend the empowerment for that wonderful opportunity to recieve precious teachings. Do this every year, and you could end up with dozens of commitments for practice. Then, what to do? Of course, we can self help: purify and — if we’ve completed retreat — perform self-initiation — and if not, attend the next initiation with our teacher. But, what if we continue to miss our commitments. Or, worse, want to give them up?
Lama Zopa, in advising a student wrote:
“If you are busy and want to abandon your commitments mentally, this is the most disrespectful. If you are busy and have the wish to do them but are unable to do so, this is lighter.”
It’s tempting for people brought up in “the west” to wonder if breaking our practice commitments and our promises to our teacher is really all that big a deal. What about unintentionally betraying our Bodhisattva and Vajrayana vows? In “the west” don’t we all do it? The little white lies. Caring for one person more than another. Thinking negative things about people even if we don’t say them out loud.
“As human practitioners of Dharma, we make mistakes; from time to time we may break our vows and commitments,” wrote Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, in his Guidelines for Dharma Students. “When we do so, we feel that in some way we have let down our Gurus, and the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We may have faced many obstacles due to unfavourable conditions and lack of time and energy, but at the same we also know that we have made lifetime commitments.”
I’ll admit to having broken commitments out of a lack of mindfulness, a tendency to laziness or just sheer exhaustion. Those are my excuses, anyway. A lot of times, we don’t want to even think about it. We tend to think: “Oh, it’s not that big a deal, right?” or “I just thought it, I didn’t act on it, so it’s okay.”
But are we steadily accumulating negative karma, compounded daily? Will this lead to negative habits which make matters even worse? Isn’t it best to ignore it, and move on with better habits? What do you do if you feel hopeless behind on your commitments? These are all questions I’ve asked myself many times, and judging from conversations with some of my friends, I’m not alone. Fortunately, we needn’t panic. The Buddha actually established vows for our benefits, but he also built in an escape. Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche explained during a teaching in Austria:
“..the Buddha has established this set of vows for monks and nuns, it has been allowed [by Him] to give them back again. Therefore, basically, when we take them, we take them for our life-time, we repeat the prayer “I take these vows in front of the Buddha for my life-time”, but due to his Compassion and his understanding of the human mind, the Buddha has also established that if somebody cannot keep them, it is possible to give them back. And not only is it possible to give them back once, but it is possible to give them back three times in one’s life.”
Of course, you could worry that Tantric vows are somewhat different, however, teachers usually advise us to worry less and just to “pick up where we left off.”
Zasep Tulku Rinpoche: “Do not abandon your commitments… Just pick up where you left off.”
Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche advises: “Do not think your practice is no longer worth the effort just because you have broken your commitments; do not abandon your commitments and daily practice; just pick up where you left off. My kind teacher, the most holy Tara Tulku Rinpoche said, “If you forget to eat breakfast, you don’t give up there and then. The next day, you go ahead and eat breakfast. Simple.”
Simple, wonderful, precious advice, but I thought I’d compile some wise words from various teachers on this subject, more words from my teacher Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, and sage advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche. The question we try to answer here, is not “can we ignore it?”—the answer is obviously no—but rather, what to do about it.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche has practical advice:
“Anyway, continue to do the practice again, start from now. Each day you do the practice it leaves positive imprints on the mind. Even if you recite the words and your mind is totally distracted, it still leaves imprints on the mind, and sooner or later you will have attainments on the path.”
The first issue: do you feel authentic
Sometimes we lose our motivation through lack of progress or laziness. One common reason for “giving up commitments” is you did not feel you were doing your practice authentically and felt guilty about it. This was an actual question from a student to the most Venerable Lama Zopa. She felt she was just reciting the words, and not progressing. His answer (on the Lama Yeshe archive) was quite illuminating:
“I understand very well your problem. Your problem is my problem too. It is very true. When I do pujas with other people, and they go very fast, it does not give a chance to meditate, and I don’t want it to become just words. This is why I have difficulties doing pujas with others. But on the other hand, even if you are able to just recite the words, it is very good because it leaves positive imprints and it has only positive effects. It leaves positive imprints to realize the two truths, which is the basis of Buddhism, and to realize the path of Buddhism—method and wisdom. It also leaves the imprints to realize the qualities of the buddhas, which is the goal of Buddhism—to do perfect work for sentient beings. To achieve the rupakaya and the dharmakaya for sentient beings is the goal. There is still a huge difference between just reciting the words and watching TV or reading novels…”
But what if you want to abandon the commitments. Lama Zopa replied to the same student:
“If you are busy and want to abandon your commitments mentally, this is the most disrespectful. If you are busy and have the wish to do them but are unable to do so, this is lighter. Try to do whatever you can. To abandon them could create the cause to be unable to practice in the future. But if you are busy working for others and you miss your commitments due to that, there is no need to regret much. If you miss doing them because of laziness, then there is a loss; this is more your fault. This is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama used to say when I consulted him on this matter. Don’t worry, and try again. The most important thing is to live life with bodhicitta, which becomes work for others.”
With empowerment come commitments
Formal commitments are made with vows. To break a commitment you would have taken a vow. Obviously, even if you didn’t formally take a vow with a teacher, it is good merit to practice the commitments as if you’d made a vow. Some of my friends are confused as to whether they received initiation or not. For example, a good friend attended a Vajrakilaya event with His Holiness the Shakya Trizin, and remains confused to this day, as to whether he was empowered or has the commitment. He sat with a crowd, listened to the practice initiation—mostly in Tibetan—but there was no talk of commitments, no Sadhana was given out for practice, and it felt more like a blessing.
Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche, at a teaching in Austria answered a student on this topic. The student asked: I was very new in Buddhism and people were bringing me into a very high Initiation – I realized that I got a commitment, and then I was standing there. Is this a bad karma I have?
Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche: No, we could say in such case that you have not taken the Initiation completely, because in order to take an Initiation, it is not just to listen and to repeat, and to see what is going on, but it is a deep inner process of transforming ourselves into the deity, into visualizing some syllables melting into ourselves, it is a whole process we have to go through in order to pretend to [really] have taken the Initiation. Somebody who just arrives like this and does not know much, from my point of view, has not taken the Initiation. 
Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, in his Revised Guidelines for Dharma Students, pointed out:
“There are different ways of receiving initiations. An initiation may be taken purely as a blessing, for protection or healing. Most of the thousands of people in Tibet, in India and the West who flock to Kalachakra initiations take the initiation as a blessing and to create auspicious conditions for the future. In order to receive a Tantric initiation as a actual empowerment, and not just a blessing, you are required to take Refuge and Bodhisattva vows before the initiation. When you take a higher Tantric initiation, you are additionally required to take Tantric vows.”
You can purify broken commitments
Broken commitments simply means you’re human. We move on and purify any negativities and bad habits we’ve developed — such as not doing our daily practice — and renew our vows with our teachers. This normally involves purification (for example Vajrasattva practice, or 35 Confessional Buddhas), and confession to the teacher, followed often by taken the vows again. The most Venerable Zopa Rinpoche answered a student on this issue, in this way  [Note, his advice varied for different student scenarios. To see more of his answers visit the link here>>]. He advised the student to perform both purification practices, then gave very kind advice:
“When you are doing these purification practices, my advice is to feel in your heart as much as possible that you are doing them for others, to free all the hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals from the most unimaginable suffering and bring them happiness. Remember that you are practicing for the benefit of all sentient beings. Otherwise, the motivation is too much concerned with one’s own mistakes, negative karma, and avoiding the hell realms. All of this involves the self too much, has a selfish motivation, since one does not have a realization of bodhicitta. Then, make a dedication to develop and actualize bodhicitta for oneself and sentient beings without the delay of a second, and that if it is generated, may it increase.”
Breaking the commitments isn’t the big Issue
Breaking the commitments isn’t the overwhelming issue. The bigger issue is that breaking the commitments means we’re not practising. If we’re not practising, nothing happens.
So, is “what do you do about it?” This is the question that prompted me to write his story. Most teachers ask students to rely on the foundation practices in the Lamrim. Meditation on Death is particularly important to motivating daily unbroken practice, for example — it motivates practice.
Also, many teachers have “different” guidelines. Some are stricter than others. Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche explains:
“When you take an Initiation of the fourth Tantric class (anuttarayogatantra), you take, at the same time, the commitment to perform a certain number of meditation sessions per day, as well, according to the Initiation you have taken and according to the master who has given the Initiation, you also have a certain amount of mantras to recite daily, and sometimes the daily practice of the deity on which you have taken the Initiation.But all this depends on the master who is giving this Initiation; some masters are known as being very strict concerning the commitments, and some are known to be more ‘supple’ in giving commitments.”
Rationalizing broken commitments
It’s easy to rationalize the misdemeanours: I don’t kill, not even insects; I practice generosity; I keep my practice commitments (but sometimes I rush); and so on. Thinking this way makes it seem like a “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings isn’t a breach of our vows. Or, when you’re sick in bed with the flu, it’s easy to assume “I’m too sick to practice today,” is not a breach of commitments. I think rationalizing is the biggest challenge I personally face. I endure extremely painful arthritis, for example, and sitting during practice is painful, sometimes excruciating. Am I excused from practising on those terrible days when I can’t even think through the pain? The answer, in my mind, is no. But the reality is, I sometimes do just that.
I’m generally good on my commitments, I certainly feel my broken commitments are more the “misdemeanour” type—but thinking this way is a trap in itself. It trains some of us (speaking for myself, anyway) to overlook those small, relatively harmless issues.
So, I miss a practice because I’m in pain, I’ll make it up tomorrow. I’ll do a mini-one day retreat this Sunday to make up for my week of missed practice sessions. The rationalizing mind can be very dangerous this way, at least for me.
Zasep Tulku Rinpoche: “Focus on the Commitments You Already Have”
Zasep Rinpoche advises, “Instead of taking additional initiations (commitments), I suggest you focus on the deity practice you have already received.”
It’s difficult to resist empowerments, especially if they really move you spiritually. Some of my friends seem to make it a hobby to collect initiations. I almost fell victim to this thinking early on, attending several very moving empowerments within a 3 year period. Although I have a particular devotion to one deity practice, I am committed to many. I don’t regret it, but I certainly am satisfied with my current commitments.
“When you decide to take an initiation, you should find out what are the daily commitments and vows,” advised Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche.
Practice Every Day. Just Do It.
“We try to practise every day, but sometimes we feel that the practices have become routine recitations, an obligation and no more,” Rinpoche continued. “This can happen especially when our lives are too busy and we are very tired. When this happens, we need to make time for a retreat to renew our commitments and refresh our practice. When we break our vows and commitments, we should do purification such as Vajrasattva mantras, prostrations, and reciting the Sutra of the Three Heaps by chanting the names of the thirty-five Buddhas.”
Lama Zopa Rinpoche: How to Overcome the Obstacle of Laziness
The great Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche wrote extensively on the breaking of commitments. I was particularly interested in his answer to students on how to recharge practice when faced with laziness, fatigue or even pain—all of them, more or less my obstacles. “When you don’t think of impermanence and death, that death can happen even today, at this moment, then attachment to this life arises.” He consistently advised the Lamrim practice of meditation on death and the precious human rebirth. He advised one student to think, each morning, that today he could die. He wrote this in his very popular Online Advice Book.
Pabongka Rinpoche: Even if You Don’t Understand, Follow the Commitments
To one student who wrote that he felt he could not keep his commitments because it involved too much reciting, Lama Zopa replied, “even if you don’t understand the subjects, Dharma texts, and prayers, it is still extremely worthwhile to read or recite them because it leaves positive imprints. When you read mindfully, sooner or later you will be able to understand the meaning, not only intellectually. Each realization of the path is contained in the sadhanas and ceases delusions and karma, liberates us from all the sufferings of samsara and their causes, and ceases defilements, even subtle defilements.” He wisely pointed out that many of us spend hours watching movies or reading novels each day, which have no Dharma value, so setting aside a little time for practice is always possible for most people.
What to do if you feel like you’ve taken on many commitments, almost “too many sadhanas” as one of Lama Zopa’s students put it. His straight-forward answer was that he still had to do them but “If you have many sadhanas, the general advice is you make your main meditation whichever is your main deity. You can do the other sadhanas fast. The most important thing is to meditate on the dharmakaya, then a little on the sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. If you have many sadhanas to do, the rest of the sadhana you can do quickly.”
He added “The great enlightened being Pabongka Rinpoche said, ‘Even if you don’t meditate on the meaning of the sadhanas, you are still reciting. But if you stop doing the sadhanas it is so very unfortunate. You don’t even get the good fortune from just reading or thinking of the words, which leads to positive imprints.’”
Deliberately Abandoning the Commitments
When asked outright what it meant if someone deliberately abandoned the commitments, his very direct answer was: “If you are busy and want to abandon your commitments mentally, this is the most disrespectful.”
However, to this same student, he gave, what I thought, was very powerful advice: “Try to do whatever you can. To abandon them could create the cause to be unable to practice in the future. But if you are busy working for others and you miss your commitments due to that, there is no need to regret much. If you miss doing them because of laziness, then there is a loss; this is more your fault. This is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama used to say when I consulted him on this matter. Don’t worry, and try again. The most important thing is to live life with bodhicitta, which becomes work for others.”
Please support the "Spread the Dharma" mission as one of our heroic Dharma Supporting Members, or with a one-time donation.
Please Help Support the “Spread the Dharma” Mission!
Be a part of the noble mission as a supporting member or a patron, or a volunteer contributor of content.
The power of Dharma to help sentient beings, in part, lies in ensuring access to Buddha’s precious Dharma — the mission of Buddha Weekly. We can’t do it without you!
A non-profit association since 2007, Buddha Weekly published many feature articles, videos, and, podcasts. Please consider supporting the mission to preserve and “Spread the Dharma." Your support as either a patron or a supporting member helps defray the high costs of producing quality Dharma content. Thank you! Learn more here, or become one of our super karma heroes on Patreon.
Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.